There’s a conservative case for public universities

Bob Murphy

Obtaining a college degree is the American dream, and not a partisan sport. Yet, recent polling indicated that Americans are split on whether or not colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country. A majority of Republican respondents believed that colleges have a negative effect on the United States, while a majority of Democratic respondents recognize that colleges are positive institutions for society.

This is alarming, because post-secondary education is nonpartisan and the best guarantee of personal economic success. Lack of public support for Michigan’s public universities contributed to our state cutting a billion dollars in university and financial aid funding over the last decade, forcing tuition increases instead of limiting enrollment or reducing quality.

Instead, conservatives should be leading the drive for more support for public universities, based on economics, intellectual inquiry, and most importantly, values.

The growing class and rural/urban divides are dangerous for our country. To create opportunity for everyone, the best way to attain personal wealth and class mobility is to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Graduates earn over a million dollars more in their lifetimes than non-graduates. Graduates are employed at higher rates — of all the jobs created since the Great Recession, 73 percent have gone to those with a bachelor’s degree or higher; less than 1 percent went to high school graduates.

This creates individual prosperity and, along with the better health and lower incidences of crime that graduates have, reduces dependence on social services. And since the most educated states are therefore the wealthiest, public universities are creating statewide economic vitality. President Reagan was correct: the best social program is a job, but it has to be a well-paying job that can support a family. An affordable public university education enables those careers.

It’s not just states, but counties, too. Kalkaska and Tuscola counties need more folks with degrees to create opportunity to compete with other communities. More than half of business owners have a bachelor’s degree or better; add in those with an associate’s degree or who have at least some college, and that number goes to 70 percent.

Public university graduates who earn more are those most likely to start businesses and hire their neighbors. And the education they’ve received allows them to successfully manage and grow their new businesses.

That education is in keeping with conservative traditions, too. Conservatism respects the teachings of the past. You won’t make it through an English curriculum without reading Shakespeare’s plays. Aristotle, Plato and classical studies are still the basis for philosophy. Eastern Michigan University just expanded its religious studies program, the original heart of liberal education. And that term “liberal education” doesn’t mean left-wing. It means well-rounded and wide-ranging. The entire point of a liberal education is to teach students to think critically and ask questions, including questioning their professors, so there can never be a political thought factory.

Beyond the classics, the spirit of bringing education to working people is found in public universities. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act to create land-grant institutions like Michigan State University. MSU was founded to bring practical agricultural education as well as classical knowledge to largely unsettled Michigan.

That mission endures with MSU Extension helping local farmers in every county understand and apply the latest in research to their crops and herds. Other universities like Central Michigan University and the University of Michigan have biological stations in rural communities around the state, conducting research for hardworking citizens.

Public university students and graduates are the civically-engaged citizens America needs most. Through collaboration, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps are found at all but our smallest university. Army ROTC produces 60 percent of all second lieutenants joining up, and is the largest commissioning source in the military. Bachelor’s degree holders are also more likely to be involved in their community and churches.

I know the value that public universities provide for hardworking students. I grew up poor in Cadillac, and without the financial support from the state and MSU that rewarded my efforts, I wouldn’t have become the first in my family to earn a four-year degree. I learned an appreciation for the past with my history degree, and had the liberty to study what I wanted, not what Lansing said I should study. I learned that with discipline and work, everyone has the opportunity to succeed at public universities.

And what embodies conservatism more than that?

Bob Murphy is the director of university relations and policy at the Michigan Association of State Universities.